Summary of "From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict"

Summary of

From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict

By Jack L Snyder

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Snyder, Jack L. 2000. From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. New York: Norton.

Democracy is often seen as an important conflict resolution tool. Electoral give-and-take provides incentives to compromise and moderation, so the conventional wisdom goes. Therefore, disputes can be solved peacefully rather than through resorting to violence. Snyder, however, finds that in countries making the transition to democracy electoral competition can lead to extremist appeals and ultimately violence. Nationalism and ethnic tension can, in fact, be exacerbated by democracy. Snyder reviews two prominent explanations for this pattern: "popular-rivalries" and "elite-persuasion". Which view is accurate matters a great deal because the policy implications are different.

The "popular-rivalries" argument posits that pre-existing nationalist rivalries are played out in the electoral realm once democratization begins where each nationality pursues goals that are incompatible with the aspirations of other nations. These approaches view culture as relatively unchangeable. With deep ethnic divisions, democratic elections would effectively be won and lost based on the size of different nationalities. If the "popular-rivalries" explanation is correct, the best solution is partition or power-sharing arrangements.

The second explanation, the "elite-persuasion" model, Snyder finds the more persuasive. In the pre-democratic period, he argues that the masses tend not to feel nationalism strongly. However, once democratic practices begin, elites need to rally electoral support in some way. The collective action problem is present here as in other circumstances. Nationalism can become a formidable means of rallying popular support. Nationalism can rally popular legitimacy for the leadership, yet weak national institutions also inhibit holding leaders accountable. Leaders in a position of power and political, economic, and military have the means to promote nationalist ideas. The media, in these contexts, is also frequently not entirely free or strong enough thereby inhibiting non-nationalist voices.

Snyder posits that the type of nationalism that develops depends on a number of factors: the level and timing of social and economic development, the flexibility of nationalist elites' interests with respect to democracy, the strength of national political institutions, and international influences. Where elite interests are adaptable to democracy and institutions strong, a sense of civic nationalism develops, as in Great Britain. Bismarkian Germany is an instance where strong state institutions and an unadaptable nationalist elite generate a counterrevolutionary nationalism that facilitates a strong bureaucracy. In instances where elite interests are adaptable but institutions weak, the situation produces revolutionary nationalism as in late 18th century France. Finally, where nationalist elites have unadaptable interests and government institutions are weak, ethnic nationalism develops as in pre-WWI Serbia. The book elaborates these four case studies as well as examining democratization in Eastern Europe and in the developing world.

If the "elite-persuasion" model is correct, partition may cement difference whereas the transitional context could provide an opportunity to shape an inclusive identity. To do so, democracy requires much more than simply holding elections. Civil society and strong state institutions that can enforce the rule of law, for example, are important elements.